Learning and the Changing Workplace – Part 1

IMG_0392-300x264I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of workplace Learning and Development* (L&D) or, more specifically, about the evolution of the workplace and the changing role of L&D in it. I’m not alone, of course. Jon Husband (wirearchy.com), Harold Jarche (jarche.com), and Jane Hart (c4lpt.co.uk/blog), along with several others, write often about how the globally connected workplace is changing the nature of both work and learning.

While I agree enthusiastically with their perspectives on how the role of L&D must change, I personally haven’t seen or heard of sweeping changes, only small changes within a group of my like-minded peers. Jay Cross recently summarized presentations by Peter Henschel from 1999, calling for changes in L&D and how most learning is social and largely informal. Jay notes in The principles of learning that Henschel’s lessons are still valid today. They are, and I don’t think they’re well implemented in many places. It seems nothing much has changed.

Meanwhile, corporate executives and others outside the L&D role are increasingly aware that alternatives to lecture-based instruction abound, and they expect changes. Some point to TED and Khan Academy content as exemplars of the future of workplace learning, ted_amp_networkincluding the ability to learn at convenient times and places or the effectiveness of “flipped” training where content is consumed outside a classroom and face-to-face sessions are used to discuss it and application within the organization. They seem to envision large libraries of learning products with proprietary content, very specific to an organization’s mission and current state-of-the-art thinking, which is likely neither scalable nor sustainable in all but the largest organizations. MOOCs and other loosely structured learning activities, with or without expected outcomes, have also captured the attention of execs, who then question their quality and value. And virtually all of them envision these as forms of formal learning, taking place behind the corporate firewall. Informal learning is increasingly acknowledged as important, but viewed as the responsibility of individuals and their managers, not a role for L&D. Change and innovation are expected, but so is supporting the status quo.

L&D professionals are mostly still seen as learning gatekeepers, as Jane Hart writes. Changes are expected, bringing responsiveness and agility to the “learning” function, but policies and expectations remain in place to discourage those same changes. As a result, formal learning in most workplaces looks about same as it has for the last decade, comprised of instructor-led classes (both in face-to-face and distance learning scenarios) and elearning courses. Informal learning remains something outside the L&D purview. L&D professionals continue to do the same job, more or less, responding to most knowledge or performance needs with “learning” solutions.

A lot of smart people have been calling for changes in the role of L&D for years. Their arguments are logical, sound, and just make sense. So why haven’t things changed more than they have? There’s likely no easy answer, but one factor is certainly that people are creatures of habit, reluctant to change unless it’s required. Despite global connectivity, many workplaces haven’t changed very much. The preponderance of workers, including those in L&D, are doing the same thing they have for years.

Cloud_computing.svgI think that’s about to change quickly, and L&D professionals need to be prepared. This change will be fueled not by executive decree, calls for openness and transparency, or by recognition of how global connectivity empowers individuals. It’s going to be driven by a mass migration by organizations around the world to cloud-based infrastructures, which is in turn driven by substantial cost savings, added scalability, and improved responsiveness.

Rather than managing platforms, services, applications, and farms of servers where company secrets are protected by corporate firewalls, organizations will instead contract for most of those services in the cloud. The firewall will continue to protect individual workstations or terminals, but workers will routinely work on cloud-based private platforms outside the organization. Along with that move, organizations will also likely deploy activity streams and other social constructs to stimulate cooperative and collaborative work within the organization.

The fundamental way people work and interact within the organization will change, and that will necessitate changes in the Learning and Development* role. I explore this more in part 2 of this series. In the meantime, I look forward to your thoughts.

*Learning and Development, Learning and Performance, Training and Development, etc.

Thanks for reading!
@tomspiglanin

Cloud image courtesy Wikicommons user Sam Johnson

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4 Responses to Learning and the Changing Workplace – Part 1

  1. tanyalau says:

    Hi Tom,
    thanks for your post. I’ve been thinking a lot about this too (I think we’ve been reading the same articles!). The organisation I work for has also just undergone a massive restructure (L&D is now OD…) so this presents a fairly unprecedented opportunity to try to enact change in the “L&D” function within my org.

    I totally agree that in most organisations, very little, if any change has or is occuring in the way L&D operates. Whilst I am very inspired by Harold Jarche and Jane Hart’s ideas, it can sometimes be a bit disheartening going back to your day job and figuring out how the heck you might begin to make this new L&D happen in your organisation. I felt a bit better though when I read this article recently http://www.scienceomega.com/article/1223/is-the-learning-organisation-a-pipe-dream about Gill White’s L&D experiences in a wide range of big corporations: basically saying that while she’s seen pockets of good practice, she’s never encountered a fully functioning learning organisation. It kind of puts things into perspective – about how difficult it really is to actually change the learning culture of an organisation (which is what is required to create the types of workplaces that, particularly H.Jarche talks about).

    The way I look at it is that these commentators are really describing the vision – the ideal end goal that we should all be striving for. I don’t think it’s unachievable but it’s certainly not going to happen overnight. There are lots of barriers – many of them at an organisational level. And even within L&D, there are a helluva lot of people who aren’t even aware of this vision, let alone trying to work towards it. That said, I do think there are actions that you can take as an L&D person to start working towards the end goal. For me, these include:
    – think performance support first: proactively steering away from recommending / providing “learning solutions” (aka “training”!) to recommending /providing performance support in the context of the employee’s workflow (this is very achievable – we just need to start thinking differently about our role within L&D)
    – start working more closely with the business to better understand the context in which their employees work (not just relying on a SME’s claims about this) to recommend or support more effective solutions and better evaluate the outcomes of the solutions we’re helping to implement.
    – where we are developing a ‘learning solution’ for them, ensure that it’s not just a single training or eLearning event – try to embed ongoing support to help employees apply the learning in the workplace. Again this requires working closely with the business on an ongoing basis to help them support their employees.

    Anyway, those are my thoughts (/”rant”) – thanks for a thought provoking post!

  2. tanyalau says:

    oops, just thought of a couple more things to put on the list:
    – being active users of the social tools we’re want to recommend or help support (Jane Hart has talked about this) – a lot of L&D people aren’t active users of social media
    – being comfortable with experimentation; don’t try to implement organisation wide change, experiment with small implementations e.g. if you want to introduce a social networking tool, try it within your team or business unit first

    btw…I’m actually not sure I understand your argument about cloud based services instigating change…but look forward to part 2

  3. Thanks for your “rant!” I appreciate your taking the time to write, and I’ll probably quote you in a future post :)

    Let me put a slightly different spin on my thoughts and yours. While I hadn’t meant so much to criticize “our industry” and our colleagues around the world, there seems to be complete agreement among those of us actually pressing to change things for the better that industry-wide things aren’t changing (see Jane Bozarth’s new Pinterest board http://pinterest.com/janebozarth/ld-responses-to-change/ that emerged from a Twitter conversation this morning). I closely follow the work of Harold Jarche, Jane Hart, John Husband, Clark Quinn, Jane Bozarth, Paul Simbeck-Hampson, Charles Jennings, Donald Taylor, Jay Cross, David Kelly, Mark Britz, and others I likely forgot as I rush this note. I follow them not because they have good commentary as much as they freely and selflessly share good ideas that I can use in my workplace. Ultimately it’s our responsibility to effect changes – no one else will. Many of those I follow are what some call “consultants” and others (like me) I now understand are called “practitioners.” We all work together, it’s a good community.

    A hint as to where I’m going in Parts 2 and maybe 3 (not sure, you just never know when you write where things go) is to explain my logic about the cloud being the catalyst for change, and then why what the “commentators” have been saying will be our guide for how to ride the wave that’s coming, rather than be overtaken by it and marginalized, as Jane Hart writes.

    Again, thanks for writing. Are we connected on Twitter? If not ping me so we can connect. Thanks!

    • tanyalau says:

      Hello again Tom!
      thanks for letting me think out loud in your blog space ; ) Thanks for the link to that pin board of Jane Bozarth’s – very awesome! I have also been following (most of ) those you mention, for inspiration but yes, also for ideas to implement. I think what I’m starting to realise is though as a practitioner is that there’s no ‘recipe’ for implementing this change – it’s more a process of filtering, mixing and matching the ideas you think might work, experimenting and adapting them for your own organisational context – as every organisation is starting from a different baseline, with it’s own unique environment, technologies, structure & culture…
      And for a while I’ve admired these “commentators” (for want of a better word! I know many of them have a wealth of experience implementing these ideas in orgs) from afar, and only now starting to realise that there IS a whole community out there that you can actually become a part of – and work with – as you start your own little crusade for change in your own organisation.
      Really looking forward to your follow up posts – you’ve got me intrigued!
      I’ll catch up with you on Twitter…and no doubt lrnchat – once I finally manage to make it to one (some time very soon!).
      thanks Tom!

      Tanya

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